“A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin’s collection of short stories is simply superlative. The stories draw heavily on the author’s eventful life as an alcoholic, a teen single mother, a nurse in ER, and a cleaning lady. Reading the collection is a little like reading an autobiography with detailed insight into some portions of her life and an translucent curtain drawn over other portions. Each story is a beautiful little vignette, a little like a comic strip where character and movement and plot all come together with a few brushstrokes. Her writing is simple and spare, direct and searing, reminding me of Didion and Hemingway, packing a punch to the gut with little fanfare and no drama.

Lucia Berlin had an alcoholic mother, alcoholic uncle, abusive grandfather and a sister who died young, of cancer. She had four sons, the first born while she was a teenager, and she raised them on her own as she slid into alcoholism while working all manner of odd jobs. For some part of her childhood, she lived a life of wealth and privilege in Chile but was disowned by her family after her first pregnancy. These are facts I gleaned from the stories, but in a circuitous way because the stories meander to and fro over the years of her life. There are stories detailing incidents from years of her childhood interspersed with those talking about her nursing of her younger sister as she lies dying in Mexico, surrounded by children, ex-husbands and a lover.

Many of the stories are poignant – an alcoholic single mother gathering coins late at night to get a cup of alcohol, stumbling 45 mins one way to the liquor store that opens at dawn because her grown sons have hidden her car keys and wallet, then trudging back in time to get the laundry done so the younger boys have clean socks for school. Some are heart-wrenching – especially the memorable tale of a young Mexican immigrant with a husband in prison, a newborn son and absolutely no resources. Others are provocative, such as the tale of a mother finding a soulmate and lover in her son’s friend. There is plenty of humor, particularly of the darker sort.

This is not a book to miss. I was enthralled and uncharacteristically read it slowly so I could draw it out and savor each story, mull it over and digest it before I moved to the next. I have already bought a copy to give to a friend and will be passing my copy around to a few more friends.

A Manual for Cleaning Women
Author: Lucia Berlin
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: August 2015

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader, sometime engineer.

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